22.24, Saturday 9 Feb 2008

Impro (Keith Johnstone) has four chapters: Status; Spontaneity; Narrative Skills; Masks and Trance. The following are excerpts from the final chapter, Masks and Trance.

On what a Mask is:

It's true that an actor can wear a Mask casually, and just pretend to be another person, but Gaskill and myself were absolutely clear that we were trying to induce trance states. The reason why one automatically talks and writes of Masks with a capital 'M' is that one really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Nonsense perhaps, but that's what the experience is like, and has always been like.

A Mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing the spirit to take possession of it.

The feeling of wearing a Mask:

Many actors report 'split' states of consciousness, or amnesias; they speak of their body acting automatically, or as being inhabited by the character they are playing.

Once students begin to observe for themselves the way that Masks compel certain sorts of behaviour, then they really begin to feel the presence of spirits.

At the moments when a Mask 'works' the student feels a decisionlessness, and an inevitability. The teacher sees a sudden 'naturalness', and that the student is no longer 'acting'. At first the Mask may flash on for just a couple of seconds. I have to see and explain exactly when the change occurs. The two states are actually very different, but most students are insensitive to changes in consciousness.

On how to put on a Mask:

Once the student has found a comfortable Mask, one that doesn't dig into his eyes, I arrange his hair so that it covers the elastic and the top of the forehead of the Mask. I then say: 'Relax. Don't think of anything. When I show you the mirror, make your mouth fit the Mask and hold it so that the mouth and the Mask make one face. You'll know all about the creature in the mirror, so you don't have to think about that. Become the thing that you see, turn away from the mirror, and go to the table. There'll be something that it wants. Let it find it. Disobey anything I'm saying if it wants to, but if I say "Take the Mask off", then you must take it off.'

What a Mask can do:

A new Mask is like a baby that knows nothing about the world. Everything looks astounding to it, and it has little access to its wearer's skills. ... They don't know how to take the lids off jars; they don't understand the idea of wrapping things ... When objects fall to the floor it's as if they've ceased to exist.

the inability to speak is almost a sign of good Mask work. Actors are amazed to find that it's necessary to give the Masks 'speech lessons'. ... Speech lessons sound silly, but remember Chaplin, who never really found the right voice for his Tramp. He made many experiments and finally made him sing in gibberish (Modern Times).

The personality of Masks:

My suspicion is that the number of 'personality types' that emerge in Mask work is pretty limited. ... just as myths from all over the world show similar structures, so I believe that wherever there is a 'Pantalone-type' Mask there will be Pantalones.

'It's like you get the freedom to explore all the personalities that any human being may develop into--all the shapes and feelings that could have been Ingrid but aren't. Some Masks don't trigger any response ... maybe these are spirits outside Ingrid's repertoire, that is any one person may have a limited number of possibilities when he develops his personality.'

Being analytical (the Waif is a particular Mask Johnstone uses regularly, which has its own childlike personality):

We have instinctive responses to faces. Parental feelings seem to be triggered by flat faces and big foreheads. We try and be rational and asset that 'people can't help their appearance', yet we feel we know all about Snow White and the Witch, or Laurel and Hardy, just by the look of them. The truth is that we learn to hold characteristic expressions as a way of maintaining our personalities, and we're far more influenced by faces than we realise. ... Sometimes in acting class a student will break out of his habitual facial expression and you won't know who he is until you look at his clothes.

If we wanted to be analytical we could say that the flatness of the Mask, and its high forehead, are likely to trigger parental feelings. The eyes are very wide apart as if looking into the distance, and helping to give it its wondering look. Where the bottom of the Mask covers the wearer's top lip, a faint orange lip is painted on to the Mask. Everyone who has created a 'Waif' character with the Mask has lined their lip up with the Mask's, and then held it frozen. ... It was only when she froze her top lip in this way that she suddenly found the character. The eyes of the Mask aren't level, which gives a lopsided feeling, and is probably the cause of the characteristic twisting movements that the Waif always has.

I've never worn a Mask, but I have held an African tribal mask over my face and it feels like freedom.

We use our face as storage for emotions, so why not use appearance, poise, habitual personal space, and the expectations of others as storage for personalities? Change any of those, and those are your personality parameters you're playing with.

The idea there are a limited number - or at least stable set, or basic vectors - of personalities I find intriguing. It doesn't seem unlikely that there are certain personalities which are with the grain of however the 'model of the other' is represented in neurons. And people will end up snapping to grid and becoming those personalities because everyone else imposes it on them.

Trance state and spontaneity: when I write a talk, I write long hand first, and I write as if I'm speaking. When delivering, I half read and half speak--the words always need adjusting according to the feel of the room. But when everything is perfect, I feel I'm aloft. I start reading from my notes, then improvise... only to, paragraphs later, look down and found I've improvised what I wrote before, word for word.

The experience of predestined free will is magical.

Follow-up posts: